After centuries of being at the mercy of their employer’s schedule, low-wage workers finally have the bargaining power to demand a perk one reserved for white-collar workers: flexible work hours.
With the goal of attracting mothers and working parents, Amazon announced this week that workers in certain roles, ranging from warehouse to delivery, can cancel a shift “in as little as 16 hours” before it begins or can swap shifts with other employees at the last minute. Meanwhile, Starbucks is testing a “shifts app” aimed at making it easier for employees to work available shifts to meet their personal needs. (The latter also comes as Starbucks baristas in New York state are looking to unionize.)
In recent years, employers including Walmart began to offer more job flexibility amid the tight US labor market, and a growing number of companies have followed. Job postings offering “flexibility” jumped from 6.4% in 2016 to 20% in 2021, according to data from ZipRecruiter. Flexibility is becoming more of a norm for all jobs in the US—and that has accelerated during the pandemic.
In a tight labor market, traditional, work-site employers are now competing against the growing number of remote-friendly companies, says Julia Pollak, a chief economist at ZipRecruiter. For instance, call centers, which before the pandemic required workers to make calls from a central location, are now allowing them to make their calls from home. Even at jobs that require workers to be on-site, some employers are allowing workers to complete administrative tasks at home, she adds.
“As a result, the on-site employers are having to somehow sweeten the pot and offer a little bit more flexibility because they’re losing huge numbers of workers to employers who are more flexible,” she says. “If they can’t compete on space, they’re competing on time.”
The unpredictable nature of low-wage jobs
Historically, flexibility was not on the employee’s side. A 2015 study from the University of Chicago found retail workers reported concerns about short notice of their work schedules and unpredictable changes, which would interfere with child care and other aspects of home life and contributed to turnover. Over three-fourths of both part-time and full-time employees reported receiving one week or less notice of the days and hours they would need to work, according to the study.
Scheduling software focused on boosting company’s revenues, such as Walmart’s in 2007, which moved workers from predictable hours to when there was customer demand. That led to workers feeling like they have no control over their schedule. In 2014, Starbucks baristas voiced objections to a system that forced them to work shifts with only a few hours break between them. Their resentment forced the coffee chain to make their scheduling practices more employee-friendly, such as by preventing managers from booking employees to work shifts with less than eight hours in between.
The systems have gotten more sophisticated by integrating with software like Slack and Facebook Messenger to make communication more seamless, says Jayson Saba, a senior director of product management at UKG, a global HR and workforce management company. The pandemic forced wider adoption.
But, given how companies have used them in the past, some are still skeptical of the updated scheduling practices. “Flexibility is a buzzword, which really means last minute scheduling and unpredictable lives for low-wage earners,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in an email to Quartz. “The rise of this practice is just the latest cover for long-standing scheduling issues which leave workers in precarious positions. Without fair scheduling practices workers cannot plan their lives, take care of their children or elderly parents, take a necessary second job or seek additional training or courses to advance their careers.”
A number of cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City have established scheduling laws with universal standards for scheduling hourly workers in industries like retail, food service, and hospitality.
When the labor shortage eases, the benefit could disappear, says Ruth Milkman, a professor at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. “All that said, this is definitely something workers care about… so even if it’s only due to the current labor shortage, it’s good to see some effort to address it, however limited,” she says.
The future of low-wage work is more flexibility?
Amazon, the second largest employer in the US, tends to set the bar for what other low-wage employers provide their workers. The company—which raised its average hourly US wages to $18 an hour—is struggling to attract workers, and in its most recent earnings call, mentioned how it is spending a lot more to overcome supply chain difficulties. Flexible scheduling can help make employers like Amazon more attractive, says Saba.
“Everyone is getting paid pretty much the same in these types of jobs, no matter where they go,” he says. “So it’s not a money piece anymore. How are we going to differentiate and how are we going to adapt to meet that? It comes down to that.”
Overall, the pandemic is forcing employers to streamline their hiring process, by improving how they post and advertise job postings, says Pollak. “When you have to learn to attract workers in a tight labor market, you have to just improve as an employer and be a better employer,” she says. “And once you’ve made those improvements, I don’t think you dial them back.”
It’s still in the early days, but the improvements in conditions and wages of jobs that need to be done on-site can unlock huge potential for these workers. At the same time, when companies switch to more flexible scheduling, they often don’t see employees working less, resulting in everybody working shifts that make them happier, with no overall decline in productivity and higher retention, says Pollak.
“It’s an exciting shift,” she says. “Whenever you have this huge shift of winners and losers and the losers need to play catch up and figure out what to do, it can improve outcomes for everybody.”